Verbatim transcript, from digital recording, of a November 2006 interview with Minnesota's outgoing Secretary of State Mary Kiffmeyer. See corresponding story here and here.
PS: Let’s start with the softball question: what was your greatest success?
MK: I think the voter turnout during my time. We were tops in the country all four major elections. That was not the case; we were beginning to drift down—second and third… I think the other thing is the technology. When I took office, it was COBOL language mainframe. When I took office, it was antiquated. When I took office, it was not Y2K compliant. And we were the only state agency that was in the critical red zone on Y2K compliance and had the most riskiest--COBOL language mainframe is the riskiest for Y2K. So I was really glad I came in with a technology background and had to convince governor Ventura, a new Republican-controlled majority, and the DFLers--I had three major parties to convince that I needed almost a million dollars to get the work done in 11 months. When you think of it, convincing three major parties that a brand-new Secretary of State needs almost a million dollars to make the office Y2K compliant, that’s huge…. These were things that, through an awful lot of hard work, including the first year, digging ourselves out of a hole because of the Y2K—
PS: You inherited a hole? How did that relate to Y2K?
MK: Well, I had to go get a million dollars just to do Y2K, which should’ve been done before I came, or well on its way or certainly taken care of. The fact that it wasn’t meant I had to fill that hole—and take care of that, thank you very much, in the first year—to have to do that.
PS: On to November 7: were you surprised by the results?
MK: Yes and no. You have to realize that I kind of saw when my opponent was endorsed by three national organizations, raising money for him and raising money in general---and I think they had raised specific money for each of the five states they had targeted for those candidates, and they were universally all Democrats. They were all Democrats, they were raising money for them nationally, targeted nationally. So I was targeted by three national 527s.
PS: And which were they?
MK: One of them was the Secretary of State Project. I don’t remember the other two… So, I think: yes and no. I think other people are more surprised. And then when I was the extremely negative campaign that was based in a large part on fear, because obviously we have paper ballots, obviously we have optical scan. We don’t have any of those electronic things, so kind of a fear-mongering going on in regards to stirring people up as if there was a question or tying into Ohio or into Florida. We don’t have any chads, we don’t have any punchcards, we don’t have any of those kinds of things that were issues in those two states, but nonetheless linking it was an unfair characterization.
PS: And that was the 527s that did that?
MK: And my opponent as well. When we had the debates, he’d bring them up over and over and over again. So they were well repeated by him, and then they just took off on the same message. And so, when you pour the amount of TV that was poured in against me in a negative way in the last four or five days, plus target mail of the same thing and then radio—in the last week or so, hundreds of hundreds of thousands of dollars were poured in in a negative way against me. And their aim was to get at the undecideds… And the other thing was, the word went out that it was to be a straight party-line vote for the Democrats, none of this liking somebody and then voting for them. I had lots and lots of Democrats who did vote for me and were going to vote for me, because they really liked what I’d done. I think it’s easy for people to forget what it was like before I came to office, because after eight years, that feeling of “Oh, hasn’t it always been this way?” No. No it wasn’t. I remember all the Ventura people wanting election information, election records, and election stuff, and it didn’t exist. There wasn’t a website to put it up on. There was none of that stuff.
PS: Recently you said Joan Growe left you “absolutely nothing” when you transitioned into the job. Is this the kind of stuff you’re talking about?
MK: Oh no. You see this office as it is right now? There used to be beautiful historical piece of furniture here, that was here in the office for a long time: that was gone. There was this desk. And there were two chairs—those two chairs—they were horribly soiled, and it took me two years, I saved up enough money and got them recovered. After all it’s the Secretary of States office, I wouldn’t have one of my employees---I would say let’s get that thing recovered. And the ends were all down to bare wood. Not being a good steward of that. So those two chairs and this desk. This desk had been, it’s a historic piece of furniture. Somewhere along the line, they had added some sort of file cabinet that wasn’t part of the original. So I had the Historical Society come over, and they analyzed this piece of furniture and gave me recommendations. They refinished it and refurbished and cleaned it and took care of a lot of things. Otherwise there was nothing else.
PS: It sounds like you also didn’t get the moral support you wanted. You felt like they were uncooperative when you transitioned?
MK: Joan Growe gave me one hour. She sat at this side of the desk. She had one piece of paper in front of her. I sat over there with somebody else. She gave me one hour of her time. Although we made numerous requests for organizational charts and that kind of stuff, we weren’t given anything. She had one piece of paper in front of her, and I asked her for it when I left, and she wouldn’t give it to me.
But when I took office I had no letterhead. When I took office I had to use Joan Growe’s stationery. I feel that is wrong because I think when you’re sworn into office, that day is the day you take it through. I’m seeing to it that all the stamps and all the seals and all the letterhead, that do the official business, that my whole office will be ready, Tuesday afternoon, to put the new name and all the letterhead will already be just carried over—quantity to be carried over—and then after that they can do what they want.
PS: You recently told the press you’d involve the Capitol Security in overseeing Mark Ritchie’s transition. Are you expecting there to be complaints against you by the Secretary Elect?
MK: He complained all about me. I ran the same kind of tight ship all along, but during the campaign he’d say things over and over again, but you don’t change because, well, now here you are. In his acceptance speech, and even in things after that, he continues to take pokes. You know, you don’t need to do that anymore. It’s called graciousness. I appreciate the fact—I think that word was even used in regards to the transition article that was written. It’s because of how I do things and who I am.
PS: What about regrets? The National Day of Prayer thing, where you said probably the five most destructive words in America today are separation of church and state—
MK: Are you quoting from something written down there?
PS: I’m summarizing what I have written down that I noted from somewhere else. But I can’t find the original passage uninterrupted—
MK: That’s because it never was.
PS: What’d you actually say?
MK: That was a cobbled together--- That is the most—When you think of journalism and writing, whenever you see something together with separate little quotes, it tells you right away: is that what I really said? What he did was he took these five words and these words and these words and put them together to say something I didn’t say. What I routinely do when I talk to people is say, the five words are not in the Constitution. When I read the article, the language that is actually there. So people just know the truth. What’s destructive is when you tell people they’re there and they’re not. And you tell them they’re there and they’re not with an intention to keep them away from being involved. That’s destructive. To say those five words aren’t in the Constitution with an intention to use that falsehood to say, “No, no, no, you guys can’t. You faith people--you have a faith, unless you’re something other than Christian--you people, because there’s a separation of Church and State, you have to stay out.” That’s destructive because, I feel anytime you try to keep anyone out from being involved in their government, but to misquote or to lie about what’s in the Constitution? That is usually how, when giving I’m giving a talk—so, there is no such thing, at all.
PS: Do you think the framers of the constitution intended for there to be that sort of firewall between the influence of religion on public policy?
MK: The quote from Thomas Jefferson, the firewall that was created was from the government intruding on religion. That is the quote from Thomas Jefferson, about that separation of church and state, that wall of separation, was a quote taken out of his letter to the Baptist Society that said, don’t worry, the government won’t intrude on your religion, because there’s this wall of separation. It was a separation and a wall to keep the government from messing with religion. Obviously, how do you keep people of faith from never having an opinion from government? What segment of society are you going to say shouldn’t? Because I would say, other than the atheists—which, by the way, that’s a religious group, too—
PS: It is?
MK: Atheism is a belief that there is no god. So really, between atheists and Christians and all these others… how many people are left then to have an influence on government if it’s to go the other way? So the wall of separation was intended to say, “you can have freedom to flourish in your religion, OK, and the government won’t mess with your religion.” You have the freedom. But there’s no such thing as an unlimited freedom. In other words you can’t cry fire in a theater. That’s the most common example; in other words, to holler fire when there is no fire, and you do things like that, you can—slander is another one, when there’s laws against free speech so you can’t slander. Except, by the way, for politicians. You can slander politicians with impunity… So you can slander us… I think that the biggest thing for me was, when I talk about those things, I talk about them more, and then I talk about the 501c3 and you take the ability to not be taxed is what gives you more restrictions on what you can do in your church, but you chose it because you applied for a 501c3. So, if you’re not a 501c3, and you pay your taxes, you revert back to only being under the constitution, which doesn’t take away your—you can endorse, you can do all kinds of things. The only thing that restricts you is the 501c3. That’s the kind of conversation which is based on giving the truth to people who’ve been lied to. So when they’ve been lied to, told this is in the constitution and it isn’t, and lied to in giving a sense that this is why, when in fact it’s the 501c3 that restrains you more than the constitution doesn’t at all.
PS: You’re a person of faith, and it hasn’t prevented you from having this job for eight years. Do you feel like your faith is evident? Would anyone coming in seeing you do your job notice that your faith is what guided you in it?
MK: I would say, not from the sense of the typical thing. Which is: you notice when you walk in, this is the way my office always is. Because I believe it’s an official office. Now inside my little personal bathroom right there, I can hang all the scripture versus I want?
PS: And are there a lot in there? It’s wallpapered? (Laughing)
MIK: There isn’t anything in there. I’ll show it to you. Hey listen: the Star Tribune went into my basement in my first few months after I was elected, they did a story. You could tell, I could see they were kind of looking. It was insulting in a way. I give you the courtesy of having you to my home, at least you could do the courtesy of not—but I thought, for sure they’ve heard of these things… I took them down to the basement and showed them everything there as well.
People of faith and people not of faith have said, How is your faith impacted here? How do you do that? Often they have this garish notion. I think they really have this boogieman—whatever--type thing. And there’s always those out there, of course, but that’s not where 99.9% usually are. But anyways, in regards to: I said, God is no respect of persons, whether you be male or female, Greek or Jew, slave or free, all are equal in God’s eyes. Many, many years ago, as I was reading those scripture verses---and I am a literalist, so when I read something like that, in my own personal—before I was Secretary of State—studying this, saying---Francis Shaker wrote a book, How Then Shall we Live. How then shall we live? So for me, if God is no respect or persons, I’m not either. So when you come to the counter, no matter who asks an election question, they all get the same answer. They may not like it, but they will all get the same answer. The problem is, some don’t like it. And the problem is, when you don’t like the law, it’s not the fault of the person who upheld the law, because that’s my oath of office… When I spoke about what Martin Luther King means to me, and the one thing delightful in the African American community, you can quote scripture verses all you want and absolutely no—They’re like, “Amen, sister,” and they’re like right with you. But as I share that, that is why God is no respect or person… There was a gal who came up and her first words to me were, “I’m a democrat.” And she started crying, and said, “After hearing you talk, I can sense that the honor and integrity that is in your heart, and sharing that is so strong within you.” And she started crying and saying, “I feel so much better.” I almost started crying because I was feeling so bad for her.
PS [Joking]: Because she’s a Democrat, right?
MK: No. That she would feel so terrorized that way. What are people saying out there? What are people doing? For political purposes they are terrorizing these people and fearing them to death. That isn’t the reality. I think there’s political gain to create this fear situation for people. And the hard thing is a lot of people out there maybe don’t have recourse. As the opportunity that I had to talk with her and share with her… it radically changed her perceptions.
PS: Who’s terrorizing her? It sounds like perhaps you’re mischaracterizing the religious left though. My experience as a liberal Catholic is not that anyone is saying you can’t believe what you believe---
MK: Did I say anything about the religious left? I don’t see the correlation there.
PS: You were saying she didn’t feel free enough to express herself on her side?
MK: Who? I don’t recall saying that.
PS: Ok, maybe I misunderstood. Why did you feel bad for her? Because someone was politicizing—
MK: It had nothing to do with faith. What it had to do with the integrity of the electoral system.
PS: Uh, ok. As I’m running out of time here. I’m wondering if you could talk about the future and tell me if you’ll run for Mark Olson’s seat should he resign.
MK: I don’t know. It’s not an open seat right now.
PS: So you can’t say if you have an inkling or want to serve your district that way?
MK: You know, I’m one of those people that I love whatever I do, and I usually respond to a need. Is there a need? And when there’s a need, I love doing it. My mother, when I grew up, there was a lot of work. And I remember my mom saying, “You’ve got to learn to enjoy your work, because there’s more work in life than fun, and if you don’t learn to enjoy your work you’re going to be a miserable person.”[brief section not transcribed]
PS: I know everyone who comes in and interviews you probably mentions the same stories: the terror alert posters, the “five words,” maybe the lawsuit about tribal ID cards. But I don’t need to go into all that stuff. Suffice it to say, you’ve been kind of a lightning rod for criticism and dislike from a certain sector. Why do you think that is?
MK: Know what my mother said? Consider the source.
PS: Who’s the source?
MK: Generally the Democrats. Mary Lahamer in March of 1999 said, “And once again, since the day she’s been elected the secretary of state has been attacked by the Democrats.” Three months after I got elected it was, “And, once again….” It’s been going on since the day I got elected. Just unrelenting attacks and just going after me all the time.
PS: So it’s definitely on their part and not about how you’ve administered the office?
MK: Well take a look at it sometimes, if you look at the quotes and clips. The other thing that was amazing to me is, when I traveled in 1998, I visited with all 87 county auditors, personally with 86 of them (one of them, I got to office at 4:30 and the office was closed, but I was there! And I couldn’t get back to it because it was a far-flung county, but I called them up and had an individual chat with them. And they complained about the computer system. Kind of this thing, like: I came in with such---I gave them this special toll-free number and I did stuff and went to things and found that it is ever-unending. I can’t seem to get ahead of… You meet this and it’s more. You meet this, and it’s more. It’s unending.